Revisiting Long-lost Gems: American Folktunes in Nineteenth-century Piano Music
In the nineteenth century, classical music was in its infancy in the United States and uniquely American musical voices were few and far between. Although there were some notable exceptions—such as pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk—most American musicians flocked to Europe "only to return with pale imitations of Wagner and Brahms."1 The music of most nineteenth-century American composers mirrored forms, genres, and musical styles of the established European tradition and, as a result, nearly all of it has vanished into oblivion.
As European-trained American musicians made their return journeys home, alongside them came Europeans seeking opportunity in this young and exciting new country. Musicians were swept up in the waves of immigrants that washed over American shores in the nineteenth century. Throughout the 1800s the Unites States saw immigration on a scale that was unprecedented in world history. In just one of the waves, between 1845 and 1854, three million Europeans immigrated to the United States. This was at a time when the United States population was twenty million—a number that includes immigrants who had come to the United States in previous decades of the century.2 Upon arrival in their new homeland, immigrant pianists set up shop as private teachers and sought out academic appointments in America's colleges and universities. Many of these educators immediately began creating new teaching methods and composing new music tailored to the needs of their American clientele. To attract students, many of them incorporated American folk tunes into their works.
The bulk of the music written by these immigrant pianists follows a pattern of predictable and pleasing music based on patriotic, sacred, and popular melodies. Complexity of form, such as sonata form, was almost unheard of, and simple melodies were invariably embellished in sets of variations or free fantasies. Such simple formulas were followed in order to meet the teaching needs, musical abilities, and tastes of the genteel households of the time. Most works were written in a quasi-virtuoso style, emphasizing right-hand melody, simple harmonic patterns, and basic metrical rhythms—a style labeled easy and pleasing by immigrant pianist Charles Grobe. Most of this music has faded into obscurity, many works undeservedly so—because they provide wonderful light fare for piano students today. With a little digging, one can find pieces that are excellent pupil savers and audience pleasers.
Home Music Making in Nineteenth-century America
The market for this music was fueled largely by the home music making activities of the time. Children, particularly young women, were expected to gain at least functional keyboard skills during their upbringing. Participation in the arts as home entertainment—music making, dancing, painting, needlepoint, etc.—was considered an essential part of a well-rounded education. With the increasing availability of inexpensive instruments, the piano became an integral part of American households.
This availability of household pianos came about through a blossoming in American piano manufacturing during the nineteenth century. In the 1820s, American companies produced only about 2,500 pianos each year, but by the middle of the century that number rose to over 20,000.3 During this same period, manufacturers' list prices for new pianos remained about the same—for approximately $225, one could purchase a new, good-quality instrument.4 Regardless of suggested retail prices however, high supply levels and aggressive competition amongst retailers led to much lower purchase prices for consumers by the middle of the nineteenth century. With a little patience and some shopping around, one could find a piano priced as low as $160.5 The second half of the nineteenth century saw further decline in piano prices, and as early as 1865 new pianos were being advertised for as low as $50.6 This led to radical changes in the music making activities of Americans. By this time the piano became the main household instrument and Americans needed to be trained in how to play this instrument.
American Music by Immigrant Musicians
Two of the most prolific nineteenth-century immigrant piano teachers to capitalize on this boom in the availability of pianos and the interest in piano playing were Heinrich Maylath and Charles Grobe. Both of these individuals enjoyed very successful careers, Maylath in his private studio and Grobe in the world of academia.
Although completely unknown today, Austrian-born pianist Heinrich Maylath (1827-1883) was one of the leading pianists and teachers of his day. He attained a stature such that his life warranted a short entry in the first American Supplement to George Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Maylath immigrated to New York in 1867 "and made a fine reputation as player, teacher, and composer for the piano."7
The German pianist Charles Grobe (1817-1879) moved to the United States as a young man and quickly launched into a long and successful career as an educator, composer, and, for a time, a businessman. He was head of the music department at the Wesleyan Female College in Delaware from 1840 until 1861. During this time, he developed his New Method for the Pianoforte, a publication that sold well and remained in use across the United States for the next thirty years. From 1862 until 1870 he taught privately and sold instruments through his Musical and Educational Agency. He re-entered the professorial ranks in 1870, first at the Pennington Seminary and Female Collegiate Institute (1870–74) and later at the Centenary Collegiate Institute (1874–79). Grobe was best known as a composer of "predictable but pleasing piano music" (his own subtitle) which he published between 1841 and 1879. His nearly 2,000 works include dances, Civil War battle music, and variations brillantes on operatic, sacred, patriotic, and popular melodies.8
To support their teaching, both Grobe and Maylath wrote collections of intermediate-level pieces. Most of these works incorporate popular melodies and offer repeated practice of some basic hand coordination exercise: five-finger patterns, scales, arpeggios, or some other basic exercise designed to develop finger dexterity. They are perfect pieces to assign intermediate-level students—works that entertain while developing skills that are the foundation of keyboard education.
From the works of Henry Maylath, some of the best examples can be found in his Twelve Favorite Melodies, Op. 57. In each piece of this set, Maylath presents a simply harmonized theme followed by one or two variations, variations that incorporate finger exercises over fairly simple accompaniment patterns. In the works of Charles Grobe, one can find innumerable teaching pieces in the set Gems of the South and the huge collection entitled Melodies of the Day: A Collection of Popular Airs with Easy and Pleasing Variations. The latter work is a collection of ninety-seven different American tunes, each with two or three variations. It was published as separate pieces over many years and under various opus numbers, ranging from Op. 597 to Op. 1352—Grobe was an extremely prolific composer. These sets offer works similar to those of Maylath; each piece follows the same formula—a simply harmonized theme followed by a few variations. Taken as a whole, this repertoire provides a wealth of material for intermediate-level students. One can find engaging pieces that are études in any one of the myriad technical skills younger pianists develop in the course of their intermediate-level training.
Repertoire for the Teaching Studio
For early-intermediate students, there are works that are studies in playing five-finger patterns. An excellent example of this is Henry Maylath's setting of Up in a Balloon." After a simply harmonized statement of the tune, a single variation offers students an exercise in playing five-finger pattern gestures (Excerpt 1).
The left-hand part in this variation alternates between a five-finger pattern exercise and simple accompaniment patterns. The right-hand passagework includes multiple five-finger patterns and scalar passages that extend just beyond a fifth. To help students focus on developing the skill of performing this gesture, Maylath carefully constructed this variation so that the student experiences sixteenth notes in only one hand at a time.
As students progress into playing scales in the context of repertoire, pieces such as Grobe's Variations on "Pop Goes the Weasel" can be introduced to help develop this technique. Works such as this one provide students a way to develop their coordination of playing scales over simple accompaniment patterns (Excerpt 2).
While the left hand maintains a relatively simple rhythmic and harmonic pattern, the right hand explores the D-major and G-major scales. Pieces such as this one are excellent assignments for mid-intermediate-level piano students as they are delightful show pieces—works that sound more difficult than they are in reality.
Another important skill for intermediate-level students to develop is that of playing trills. For teaching students the art of playing trills one can find pieces such as Maylath's Variation on "Home, Sweet Home" (Excerpt 3).
In this passage, the left hand is given measured trills and scales while the right hand plays the melody with close-position chords.
For developing the skill of playing arpeggios, Maylath and Grobe provide a wide range of works. Arpeggios are perhaps the most common of the techniques used by these two pedagogues as they varied the melodies that they arranged. An excellent example of an arpeggio étude is Grobe's Variations on "Uncle Ned" (Excerpt 4).
This work incorporates extensive arpeggio patterns throughout the first variation—particularly at the beginnings and ends of phrases.
Another skill these works develop is playing various left-hand accompaniment patterns. Most of the teaching pieces that Maylath and Grobe wrote contain fairly common left-hand accompaniments. One of the most extensive studies in accompaniment is Grobe's Variations on "Buy a Broom." This piece offers students practice of many different left-hand patterns, from the very simple—quarter-note broken chords and simple oompah patterns—to the more complex, such as rapid Alberti-bass patterns. The first variation changes the accompaniment pattern nearly every phrase; the left hand starts with a broken-chord pattern in the first phrase, then changes for the next (Excerpt 5).
The second and final variation continues to develop the accompaniment, culminating with a rapid Alberti bass (Excerpt 6).
Taken as a whole, these works provide excellent fare for students whose goal is to develop sufficient keyboard skills to enjoy music making at home and in social circles with friends. They are pieces that engage intermediate-level students studying piano for their own personal fulfillment and enjoyment. This group of students may have some interest in learning works by the classics— Bach, Chopin, Brahms, etc.—but they are often much more engaged when they encounter music based on melodies they have known since early childhood. Studying for their own enjoyment, they appreciate pieces with which they can easily entertain friends and family.
In comparison to the works of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, the music of Grobe, Maylath, and their colleagues is generally considered pale and nearly all of it has faded into obscurity. However, it is unfair to make such comparisons. The works of these pedagogues were not written for a well-educated, upper-class audience. While there were pockets of such individuals in the United States, the bulk of the population had limited education and literacy. This music was written for the typical nineteenth-century American; it was music created specifically to entertain and amuse amateurs with little formal education. The typical American was largely uninterested—and often unable—in participating in the making of or engaging in listening to music that was technically and intellectually challenging. This segment of the population had limited experience upon which to formulate a judgment or to analyze music that had expansive structures or extensive musical complexities. This music was written to meet the needs of these individuals, and although most of these works are largely forgotten today, they should not be. Among this repertoire are a large number of harming gems that can engage and entertain us even today.
The works discussed in this article are in the public domain and freely available online through the Petrucci Music Library: www.imslp.org.
1. John Godfrey Doyle, "The Piano Music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk" (Thesis, New York University, 1974), 40.
2. Maldwyn A. Jones, American Immigration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 94.
3. R. Allen Lott, From Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.
4. Arthur Loesser, Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 458.
5. Loesser, Men, Women and Pianos, 527.
6. Scott Derks and Tony Smith, The Value of a Dollar: Colonial Era to the Civil War, 1600-1865 (Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, 2005), 424.
7. Waldo Selden Pratt and Charles Newell Boyd, eds., Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 6, "American Supplement" (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1920), 40.
8. Ann L. Wilhite and Charles S. Wilhite, "Grobe, Charles," in Grove Music Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/11804.